Ethiopian women learning to sew at an ESRA Sewing Center in Netanya.
Having recently read about the sad state of “The Refuseniks of Addis Ababa” one wonders what has happened to our raison d'être of an open door policy to those Ethiopians who seek refuge in Israel. We learn that not all are considered halachically Jewish. Whilst many have grandparents who were Jewish, it appears that if the mother of the mother is not Jewish, then the children are not accepted as Jews and are denied entry to the Jewish homeland. This was not the case with those who came from the Soviet Union with one Jewish grandparent - irrespective of whether paternal or maternal – who were accepted without question. The fact is that the Ethiopian community, whilst knowing nothing of the Rabbinic Oral Law (celebrating Purim and Chanukah is an entirely new concept), are a people whose Judaism adheres strictly to the Torah.
We hear of split Ethiopian families, some already in Israel, whilst others are living in the most disturbing of circumstances. Many do not have enough to eat, cannot earn a living and even face death because they are unable to afford the hospital fees.
This cultured, quietly spoken, refined people arrived in Israel to a land far removed from anything they had hitherto experienced. In their country of origin the father was considered the master of the house who received the total respect of his entire family. He was the one who cultivated his piece of land – the breadwinner.
Arriving in a Western-style country where women are encouraged to develop their potential, are members of the Knesset, serve on municipalities and are to be found in all professions, is alien to the Ethiopian family. Yet what has evolved, with the help of organizations such as ESRA, is the beginning of emancipation for the Ethiopian woman. Her artistic attributes are developed so that her gift of embroidery and sewing results in the opportunity to earn money for the family. What has proved interesting in Netanya, where ESRA operates a computer class for adults, is that the students are mainly women, with few male participants. As the woman develops her independence, often becoming the breadwinner, so the man feels sidelined and redundant. This feeling of inadequacy is intensified as, all too often, the former “master of the house” is unable to find work. Frustration has, at times, tragically led to violence and suicide.
The children learn to speak Hebrew quickly whilst the parents are far more comfortable in Amharic. This too causes problems, for as the children integrate they prefer to speak Hebrew, believing that it is embarrassing to speak in their parents’ mother tongue. The message some acquire is that their own traditions are to be discarded – today they are Israelis.
Does this not have a ring of the past? Do we not remember how Ben Gurion, in his attempt to make Israelis out of everyone who came here, a one type Israeli – encouraged those early immigrants from Yemen and North Africa to discard their time- old traditions? Years later, on analyzing the result, it was recognized that this was a terrible mistake. The lesson learnt was that whilst one should feel pride in being an Israeli, at the same time it was equally important to retain one’s historical traditions.
What have we learnt from our past experience? What we should have learnt, it appears, we have not. Yes, it is difficult to marry a westernized lifestyle with traditions from another land. Yes, it is a challenge to offer the right kind of support where it is most needed. Yes, we have made mistakes - perhaps in that we have concentrated on the women and the children rather than on the men.
Have we learnt from the past? Perhaps not, but there is still time to change.
The Ethiopian community brings with it an historic tradition – this is to be valued and retained, especially by the younger generation. Let us learn from our history and encourage this to become a reality.
Brenda Katten is ESRA’s chairperson.